A tough study of gay professor's suicide

October 02, 1994|By Diane Scharper

"American Studies," a first novel by a former Baltimore resident, Mark Merlis, is the story of a suicide, as remembered from the perspective of 40 years. The writing -- vivid and sometimes gut-wrenching -- contains passages like this:

"Tom pulls the trigger, the muzzle of the gun in his mouth. The bullet passes through the brain, which feels nothing, then exits through the superficial nerves of the scalp. The impulses from the scalp, and maybe from the roof of his mouth, are traveling down to the spinal cord and back up again, while at the same moment the bullet is throwing great globs of gray matter out onto the floor."

The central character, Tom Slater, a professor and department chair at a prestigious university, is investigated for communist leanings during the McCarthy era. When Slater refuses to cooperate with the investigation, the university president gathers evidence implicating Slater in a homosexual liaison. As a result, Slater loses his chairmanship and is suspended from teaching. Several months later, he commits suicide.

His friend Reeve wonders why Tom did not fight back. Reeve is this story's narrator and the beneficiary of Tom's will. Tom left no suicide note. Instead, he left deeply closeted love poems, letters and drafts of letters -- full of innuendoes -- to numerous students, and silence. Reeve says: "Tom is getting ready to inaugurate a silence, the long silence where I've dwelt for forty years without hearing his high insinuating voice. . . . Maybe some suicides are trying to say something." But Tom wants silence.

So, it seems, did F. O. Matthiessen (1902-1950), the inspiration for the character of Tom Slater. No one knows exactly why Matthiessen, literary scholar and critic, jumped to his death from his hotel window on March 31, 1950. Matthiessen was a professor at Harvard University and a highly respected author of many literary and cultural studies. He was also a homosexual and a member of the Socialist party.

Because of his socialist leanings, he was subjected to much hostility from the Harvard administration, the press and his fellow academics. Did he kill himself because of this hostility or because he was despondent over the death of a friend? Or was there something more? Was he persecuted because of his homosexuality? Was he perhaps trying to protect someone with whom he had had a homosexual liaison?

In the novel, these are the questions that Reeve ponders about Tom Slater. As a result, the book becomes more than a story about someone who resembles F. O. Matthiessen. It becomes more than just a story about gay life in America, as the jacket suggests. It becomes a study of pain. "You [Slater] could have gone into exile," Reeve thinks, "with your trust fund and your book. . . . You could have made your bargain somehow and stayed alive. As I have: all you have to do is swear off everything you call life."

During the frequent interior monologues that make up most of this book, Reeve describes the terms of such a bargain. "We do not send life forth. . . . We are supposed to move. Exile isn't our punishment. It's our condition. It starts our lives. . . . We have abandoned the seemly reticence that makes men talk only of sports and cars and bosoms. . . . We talk about love, we have made love the center of our days." But love can turn ugly, as Reeve knows.

Reeve has been attacked by someone he met at a gay bar. He also has a brief fling with his roommate. Meanwhile, he thinks about his life and the life of Slater, making connections between the two.

But the two do not easily connect. Slater seems to be someone out of Greek tragedy. An Oedipus seeking to live out the desires of both his soul and body, Slater finds he can live out nothing. Reeve, at times, seems one of "the rude mechanicals," someone from Shakespeare's "Midsummer Night's Dream," Bottom, perhaps, with little ability to appreciate Slater's tragedy.

This insensitivity jars the narrative flow. In one breath, Reeve thinks back over the sequence of Slater's suicide. In the next breath, he notices the voluptuous back of the young man in the next bed.

Reeve's attempts at flirtation are probably intended to lighten some of his more disturbing recollections about Tom. Usually, though, they interrupt, detracting from Reeve's credibility. Also detracting is Reeve's failure to mention AIDS. His part of the story occurs during the Bush administration, when a man in his position would be forced to come to terms with the disease.

Despite these flaws, the book works. The very subjects of the novel, homosexuality and suicide, draw attention. These subjects, when combined with the gift for poetry that Mr. Merlis possesses, create a riveting new voice. That voice takes bits of human spirit and holds them under the light like pieces of fabric:

"I have gone through life with an inside that most of humanity despises and an outside that can fool no one. . . . I want my saints to be of one substance, all the way to their hearts, like blocks of marble. . . . But inside them is shame and terror and doubt that . . . makes them -- as they kneel over me -- raise their fists and strike."

Diane Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University. She is the author of "The Laughing Ladies," a collection of poetry.

Title: "American Studies"

Author: Mark Merlis

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Length, price: 275 pages, $21.95

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